Oregon’s lipstick revolution — The story of Abigail Scott Duniway

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By Naomi Inman

A little lipstick goes a long way.  If you voted in this last election, you can thank Abigail Scott Duniway, Oregon’s architect of women’s suffrage, who lived one of the most remarkable lives I’ve ever known.  On the day she was born in 1834, her mother sobbed over the fact that she had brought another woman in the world, to endure a life “almost too grievous to be borne”—that is, the life of a woman.

Yet Abigail’s life work amounted to a reversal of this gloomy forecast.  A product of both the tragedy and triumph of the Oregon Trail, Abigail landed in the Willamette Valley in 1852 at age 18, where she lived out 63 faithful and furious years.  She married a good man, had six children, farmed hundreds of acres, churned butter, taught school, wrote weekly articles, wrote a novel, established a millinery shop and other business, and established a weekly newspaper.  She did all this by her late thirties and was only getting started.

That’s when her husband whispered something in her ear that set her on fire.  Ben was man enough to tell Abby that life wouldn’t be better for women until they could vote.  And to that end she campaigned for another 42 years! In November 1912 Governor Oswald West invited Abigail to sign the official proclamation giving Oregon women the right to vote.

What made Abigail’s feminism unique was her vision for enriching the life of men, including her own sons. “To elevate women, that thereby herself and son and brother man may be benefitted and the world made better, purer, and happier, is the aim of this publication,” she wrote in The New Northwest, her weekly Portland newspaper.  Motivated not by malice, but by compassion and a keen perception, Abigail believed that equality for women was important to the welfare of both sexes “because a race of free, enlightened mothers will naturally produce a race of free, enlightened sons.”

Hurrah, hurrah!  What thinking woman doesn’t want a better life for both her son and daughter-in-law?  Poor, tired, and struggling for so many decades Abigail got up every morning and put on her best lipstick…her fearless, feminine influence. She cared for those around her while never accepting the status quo.  Now that’s a lipstick revolution.

— *Excerpt from More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Oregon Women by Gayle Shirley (Globe Pequot Press, 1998).

— Naomi Inman was born in Argentina and immigrated to Oregon with her parents and three siblings.  After a short stint as a city girl she grew up in rural Clackamas County, enjoying all the girlhood pleasures of country living and horseback riding. She earned her M.A. in Journalism at Regent University (Virginia) and has put her education to use in radio and magazine work, and supremely so, as the mother of two young boys, composing rhyme to sooth the savage beast. She is happily married, intensely loved, and forever needed at all hours of the day or night.  What more could a woman ask?